Jamal Lewis indicted on federal drug charges

OWINGS MILLS – Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year who gained the second-most rushing yards in league history last season, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on drug conspiracy charges in his hometown of Atlanta. Lewis, 24, was charged with conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine. A second count alleges that he used a cellular telephone to commit the first count, according to an FBI affidavit.

The alleged crimes stem from an investigation conducted in the summer of 2000. This was months prior to Lewis' rookie season in Baltimore after the Ravens selected him fifth overall in the NFL draft.

Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, said his client was traveling Wednesday from Florida and will turn himself in to Georgia authorities today. Garland said he will immediately seek bail for Lewis and anticipates a jury trial within three months.

"Jamal wants everyone to know that he is not guilty, that he was not involved in any conspiracy to possess or distribute cocaine," Garland said in a telephone interview. "Jamal is saddened and surprised by these charges. Obviously, someone is trying to help themselves by making these false claims. "These charges are absolutely untrue. It's a case where someone is in jail and is trying to gain his freedom at Jamal's expense."

Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards last season, 40 shy of surpassing Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL record of 2,105 yards.

The 5-foot-11, 240-pound, bruising runner was selected to his first Pro Bowl two years after undergoing his second major reconstructive knee surgery.

The team was caught completely off-guard by the charges.

"I'm surprised because it's totally unexpected," defensive end Tony Weaver said. "I don't know about the facts. I know Jamal's character. "To me, he's always been a straightforward guy. I just hope he finds the right people to help get him through this."

Atlanta is the same city where Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis was successfully defended by Garland and his law partner Don Samuel in a high-profile murder trial in the summer of 2000.

Two men were killed after an incident outside a Buckhead night club following Super Bowl XXXIV.

Lewis plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice and the murder charges were dropped. His co-defendants were acquitted of all charges.

Now, Jamal Lewis is embroiled in a legal situation.

"We're aware of the situation and we're trying to learn more," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "These allegations go back to 2000, prior to Jamal's first training camp and contract. We've talked with Jamal, and he's returning to Atlanta to meet with authorities.

"We believe in due process, and Jamal will have his day in court. There are two sides to every story. From what we know of the charges, these seem out of character with the Jamal we know."

The NFL declined to comment on any aspect of the case, or what potential impact a drug conviction would have on Lewis' status in the league's substance-abuse program.

Lewis was suspended for four games during the 2001 season for his second violation of the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse policy. He was injured at the time, but was fined four game checks.

A drug conviction would trigger a third strike and a mandatory one-year suspension, according to NFL policy.

"Jamal has to be acquitted to avoid that penalty," Garland said.

Lewis' agent, Mitch Frankel, had recently begun to seek a contract extension. Lewis has two years remaining on a six-year, $35.3 million pact he signed in July, 2000.

FBI special agent Hoyt Mahaley alleged in the affidavit that an informant contacted Lewis on his cell phone on June 23, 2000, to discuss selling cocaine to associates of Lewis. The conversation was recorded, according to the affidavit.

In a 4 p.m. news conference Wednesday in Atlanta, U.S. Attorney William Duffey accused Lewis of attempting to help a childhood friend, Angelo Jackson, buy cocaine. Jackson was arraigned Wednesday, plead not guilty and was freed on $25,000 bond.

"The cooperating source told Lewis that he/she was willing to sell the narcotics to Lewis' associates for a price that Lewis can tax," meaning the price could be marked up for a profit, Mahaley said in the affidavit.

According to the affidavit, Lewis' response was: "Yes."

After the telephone call, the affidavit alleges that Lewis and Jackson met with the informant at an Atlanta restaurant where they made inquiries about the informant's drug operation. The dialogue at this meeting was also recorded, the affidavit said.

Garland acknowledged that Lewis knows Jackson and attended the initial meeting, but disputes authorities' account of his client's involvement. The attorney also said Lewis is no longer in contact with Jackson.

Mahaley said that Lewis wasn't involved after the initial meeting.

Jackson and the informant allegedly exchanged phone numbers during the restaurant meeting and then met again on July, 12, 2000, at a gas station in an Atlanta suburb.

In the subsequent meeting, the informant showed Jackson five "simulated kilograms of cocaine" in the trunk of a car and drugs were discussed, the affidavit states. However, no purchase was consummated.

The affidavit said that Jackson later paged the informant and held several meetings with an undercover FBI agent who displayed cocaine for sale. Authorities allege that Jackson expressed interest in buying the drugs, but no transaction was completed prior to an arrest for carrying a loaded gun.

As for Lewis, his only other prior brush with the law was a minor one.

Prior to enrolling at the University of Tennessee and after a storied prep career in Atlanta, Lewis and a 17-year-old girl were charged with shoplifting.

Lewis was 18 at the time and was sentenced to three years of probation, given a $1,000 fine and granted first-offender status.

Last season, Lewis shattered the single-game rushing record last September with a 295-yard performance against the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens won the Super Bowl during Lewis' rookie campaign.

"We'll establish his innocence in court, and we urge everyone to keep an open mind and to not pre-judge the case," Garland said. "Jamal said he's innocent and we believe him. The Ravens are standing by him. They know he would not be involved in something like this."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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